November 20, 2017

How a summer program for high school girls turned into an internship of a lifetime at IBM

Girls Who Code alumni have some advice for aspiring young developers: be brave and take risks

Michelle Liang, Madison Gong, and Karen Supandi credit the nonprofit Girls Who Code with giving them the tools—and the confidence—to pursue an opportunity as technology interns at IBM. They completed their internship this past summer.

Two years ago, we were three strangers to the coding world.

But curiosity eventually got the better of us, and we ended up applying to the 2016 Girls Who Code Summer Immersion Program. Girls Who Code (GWC) is a national nonprofit organization working to close the gender gap in technology and change the image of what a programmer looks like and does. There are over 80 summer immersion programs that educate girls on a breadth of technology topics, such as programming languages, and provide mentorship by female leaders in the industry.

We were placed at the IBM Silicon Valley Labs in San Jose, California, where we started from scratch—literally—and eventually learned programming languages like Python and C++. We built robots and websites, but what captured our interests most was a Bluemix (IBM’s cloud platform service) workshop that taught us how to build a chatbot using a Watson API called Tone Analyzer. Don’t get us wrong–it was the most complex project we built during the program! But we decided to jump headfirst and attempt to build our final project on that platform in the one week we had left before we finished the camp.

You could call us impulsive or bold risk-takers. We prefer the latter!

Our project set us off on an adventure that none of us could have even imagined, beginning with an invitation to give a 20-minute flash-talk at IBM’s Watson Developer Conference in San Francisco. A few months after that, we were invited to something even bigger: to speak with IBM’s CEO, Ginni Rometty, during the Chairman’s Address at IBM’s most prestigious event of the year: their InterConnect conference in Las Vegas. On stage, we talked about our experiences at GWC, our final project, and what it was like being women in technology. We were completely thrilled and surprised when Ginni offered us IBM internships for this past summer, especially when she told us it was the first time IBM had hired high school students as interns!

This past summer at IBM’s glamorous Watson West office in San Francisco was undeniably an amazing experience. We worked primarily with IBM’s EdTech initiative and helped to build “Hero Journey,” a cognitive curriculum educating K-12 students on Watson technology, which just piloted in GWC clubs curriculum this month! We also spent a lot of our time involved with trying every part of IBM work-life. Imagine fitting cardboard TJBots (IBM’s version of mini robots!) together, networking with diverse leaders from all over the nation, and then rushing off to an office dinner party. It was awesome!

Bravery is at the core of Girls Who Code's values, and we’re living examples of it.

Not only were we able to expand on our technical skills, but we were also able to get a glimpse into the real working world. It was thrilling to collaborate with professional IBMers, contribute to projects, and participate in design thinking workshops with the rest of the office. We truly felt like we were a part of IBM, and knowing we were helping to make a positive difference every day with our work was truly satisfying.

As we’ve embarked on a new school year, we’re each excited to approach challenges. Before we sign off, we’d like to impart a bit of advice to other girls out there: be brave. Bravery is at the core of Girls Who Code’s values, and we’re living examples of it. None of us would be where we’re at without those leaps we took: applying to a coding camp, trying out new platforms, and diving straight into all of the opportunities that came knocking on our door. We took risks, and they led us to a path we never even dreamed of.

If you’re looking for a sign that you should take a chance on that summer program or take a particularly difficult class or learn how to create that one project you’ve always thought about doing, this is it. Be brave. Take risks. Who knows? It just might lead you to something amazing.

Michelle Liang, Madison Gong, and Karen Supandi

Girls Who Code

Always on the go, Michelle Liang is a senior at Valley Christian high school who lives life down to the minute. Michelle spends her spare time perfecting her raspberry macaron recipe, climbing trees with siblings, and thinking big thoughts.

Madison Gong is a senior at Santa Catalina School in Monterey, California. She is the founder of Catalina's FIRST Robotics Competition robotics team, co-president of the TEDxSantaCatalinaSchool team, and an alumna of the 2016 Girls Who Code Summer Immersion Program.

Karen Supandi is currently a freshman at the University of California, Berkeley, where she's embracing her inner nerd by learning new things everyday! She enjoys late-night boba runs, city skylines, and immersing herself in technological projects that improve social mobility in areas of need.